"A smartly talky, subtly tense and superbly staged espionage drama.”
Tom Hanks teams up with director Steven Spielberg for the fourth time in Bridge of Spies, a feel-good melodramatic true-life espionage tale set in the Cold War. During this historical stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union, a principled American attorney triumphantly bargains a high-level Soviet Union spy caught in New York for two American captives in communist grounds.
James B. Donovan (Hanks) is a New York-based insurance attorney with a comfortable job in a prosperous law firm, a beautiful wife (Amy Ryan) and three kids. Meanwhile, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a plain-faced and ordinary Russian in Brooklyn who is expertly good in painting, particularly portraits. The fate of this two men crosses in 1957 when the FBI arrest and charge Abel as a Russian spy. Called into the office of his boss (Alan Alda), Donovan is selected to represent Abel in court. Donovan willingly accepts the job and actually tries to put up a strong argument for Abel, despite everyone branding him a traitor and giving him an evil eye or cold shoulder. He eventually loses the case but somehow prevents sending Abel to the electric chair. Donovan surprisingly persuades the case’s judge (Dakin Matthews) to simply incarcerate Abel, holding him as some sort of insurance at some future moment.
In the other part of the world, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is a typical all-American pilot who trained with others to fly in the U-2 spy plane program. Stationed in Pakistan, they are to commit suicide if shot down in enemy territories. Powers found himself in such unlucky situation but a mishap thwarts him from following the instruction. Instead, he survives the crash and becomes a top-level prisoner in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is an American student in Germany who finds himself at the wrong place and at the wrong time. While trying to take his girlfriend to safety from the wall that will soon divide Germany, East German soldiers arrest and held him without charge.
Donovan’s words come true and the Soviet Union offers to swap Powers for Abel. Donovan flies to Berlin for the negotiation but the bargain is complicated when he insists on trading Abel for both Powers and Pryor. But Donovan already knows how to play the game and on the Glienicke Bridge in 1962, a prisoner swap is successfully conducted.
Steven Spielberg has been credited for many fantasy sci-fi thrillers like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and A.I. Artificial but he has likewise directed a number of historical dramas like Munich, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln and Schindler’s List. Once again, Spielberg has created a movie that excels in all aspects – Bridge of Spies has a provocative gritty material, its characters are well-developed and its cinematic presentation is outstanding and mesmerizing. It is one of his more subdued and subtler productions but is no less absorbing and uplifting.
The film is a mannered depiction of a true event. It is set during the Cold Wars, a time when information is a powerful weapon between two competing countries. This is where the movie draws out drama and tension. The first half spends more courtroom time as a significant historical conflict is resolved in the jury. Conversations are excessive but dialogues are intelligently and wittily written that they are interesting to hear. Eventually, Donovan learns the act of deal-making, a proven and tested ingredient in the world of espionage. The drama heightens when the feature moves to Berlin where physical threats are more likely to succeed. A different level of complexity is also achieved when Donovan wants to strike an impossible trade. The entire story plays out over a period of five years but the film gracefully compresses it into its two-hour running time.
In an uncomfortable but satisfying manner, the movie convinces us that both Donovan and Abel are honorable men. Abel is the epitome of patriotism and loyalty, an unnerving man in the face of immediate persecution. He never breaks a sweat and quiver; yet, he is a compassionate friend and true to his words. Similarly, Donovan is committed to his ideals. He is a proper and decent family man, professionally dedicated, and an outstanding citizen who abides to the principles of the US Constitution. Yet, he is also shrewd and intuitive. He is quick to move and he knows how to twists things to his advantage. They may be standing on different sides of the line but both are brave and respectable men whose personal integrity never wavers in the midst of corruption, madness and inescapable ultimatums.
The realism of the narrative is also reflected on its breathtaking production design. Images are vivid and inspiring and details of various set pieces are solid and credible. Old Brooklyn and the New York subway system come alive with a different hum. Color palette is also striking, distinguishable between the United States and the European settings. Such locations also become a backdrop for some harrowing scenes like when Donovan, aboard an elevated train, witnesses how East German guards gun down those who hustle over the famed wall.
The entire cast is impressively engaging but it is Hanks and Rylance who carry the film throughout. Hanks, the Hollywood everyman as always, channels the humor and intelligence of Donovan in a charming fashion without overplaying his heroism. Rylance’s Abel is a sad-sack and bland character but the actor infuses his timid magnetism into the person.
Bridge of Spies is one of the best films of the year. It is grand and successful at all levels. Once again, Spielberg offers us a delightful and inspiring human story.
Production: DreamWorks Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Will Rogers, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, Billy Magnussen, Domenick Lombardozzi, Marko Caka, Noah Schnapp, Dakin Matthews, Ashlie Atkinson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Executive producers: Adam Somner, Daniel Lupi, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: Thomas Newman